Pope Francis writes to remind us of values, conscience and discernment in a changing, sometimes blurry world.
In recent weeks, Pope Francis has released his long-awaited Apostolic Exhortation on Love in the Family, entitled Amoris Laetitia, “The Joy of Love”. It is written in response to the recent Synod of Bishops on the family, held over the last two years in Rome.
Not surprisingly, it has had a mixed reception – overwhelmingly positive, though a few commentators have expressed feelings that it did not go far enough. I can understand reasons for the latter. Doctrinal change is slow. And I think we need to bear in mind that Francis has to bring the whole Church community with him, not to alienate the more conservative, but “to hasten slowly”, as we might say.
On first glance, the style is very interesting. Traditional papal teaching generally only references Scripture, authoritative Vatican documents, and the teachings of saints. But Francis develops a pastoral theology of family life that also explicitly draws from some surprising sources. He frequently refers to his own writings and addresses, he quotes from Bishops’ conferences from many countries and cultures worldwide, and The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius also gets a few references. Furthermore, Francis quotes from the movie, Babette’s Feast, he refers to Eastern masters of spirituality, and a number of poets. Protestants like Martin Luther King and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are even referenced. This is indeed a man who can “find God in all things”.
It is a considerable document, some 50,000 words, so it is not possible here to explore it thoroughly and do it justice. There are many themes developed – and many surprising. But let me advert to just a few:
The Church needs to understand families and individuals in all their complexity. Francis encourages pastors to “avoid judgements which do not take into account the complexity of various situations” (296). People should not be “pigeonholed or fit into overly rigid classifications leaving no room for personal and pastoral discernment” (298). They are encouraged to live by the Gospel, but should also be welcomed into a Church that appreciates their particular struggles and treats them with mercy. “Thinking that everything is black and white may close off the way of grace and growth”, he says (305). Overall, Francis calls for an approach of understanding, mercy, compassion and accompaniment.
The role of conscience is paramount in moral decision-making. “Individual conscience needs to be better incorporated into the Church’s practice in certain situations which do not objectively embody our understanding of marriage” (303). He is suggesting here that the traditional belief of the individual conscience being the final arbiter of the moral life seems to have lapsed. The Church is “called to form consciences, not to replace them”, he states emphatically (37). Yes it is true, the Pope says, that a conscience needs to be formed by Church teaching. But the properly formed conscience is always the final reference point. Conscience, he says, can recognize with “a certain moral security” what God is asking (303). Pastors, therefore, need to help people not simply follow rules, but to practice “discernment,” a word that implies prayerful decision-making (304). This is a very Ignatian theme.
Divorced and remarried Catholics need to be more fully integrated into the Church. Francis proposes looking at the specifics of their situation, by acknowledging “mitigating factors,” by counselling the divorced and remarried in the “internal forum,” and by respecting that the final decision about the degree of participation in the Church is left to a person’s conscience (305, 300). Here, Francis is quite forthright and challenging in what a person in this situation should honestly face and ask themselves, in conscience, before separating and/or remarrying (300). The reception of Communion is not specifically spelled out here, but that is a traditional aspect of what is referred to generically as “participation” in Church life. Francis expects that divorced and remarried couples should be made to feel part of the Church. “They are not excommunicated and should not be treated as such, since they remain part” of the Church (243).
It is worthwhile pausing here, I think, to explain this technical phrase ‘internal forum’. Imagine a marriage breaks down and one of the parties wishes to obtain an annulment so as to remarry. Say the reason was that other party disclosed after the marriage that they did not intend to have children. So he or she approaches the Marriage Tribunal – that is, the external or public forum. But suppose the petitoner cannot establish a claim that they know to be true – perhaps the other separated party is uncooperative and refuses to give evidence. So the divorced husband or wife cannot obtain the annulment. But that person may know with integrity, within their conscience (that is, the internal forum), that the marriage was invalid. So they remarry in good conscience. Thus while any remarriage may appear ‘irregular’, that person, in good conscience, may authentically discern and feel quite free to participate fully in the life of the Church and receive Communion.
We should no longer talk about people “living in sin.” In a sentence that reflects a very new approach, Francis says clearly, “It can no longer simply be said that all those living in any ‘irregular situation’ are living in a state of mortal sin” (301). They need to be offered “understanding, comfort and acceptance” (49). When it comes to these people, indeed everyone, the Church needs to stop applying moral laws, as if these laws were, in the Pope’s telling phrase, “stones to throw at a person’s life” (305).
Adapting to times, places and circumstances. The Pope is not only speaking in terms of individuals, but geographically as well. “Each country or region … can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs” (3). This is not a one-size-fits-all approach – what makes sense pastorally in one country may even seem out of place in another. For this reason and others, as the Pope says at the beginning of the document, not every question can be settled by the magisterium, that is, the Church’s teaching office (3). This is yet another strong Ignatian theme: accommodation and enculturation.
Traditional teachings on marriage are affirmed, but the Church should not burden people with unrealistic expectations. The document underscores that marriage is still between one man and one woman and is indissoluble. Though Francis had approved civil unions of same-sex partners when Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he is quite unambiguous here: “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family” (251). But at the same time, Francis says concerning heterosexual marriage, the Church has often foisted upon people an “artificial theological ideal of marriage” removed from people’s everyday lives – “overshadowed by an almost exclusive insistence on the duty of procreation” (36). At times these ideals have been a “tremendous burden” (122). To that end, clergy need to be better trained to understand the complexities of people’s married lives. “Ordained ministers often lack the training needed to deal with the complex problems currently facing families”, he honestly acknowledges (202).
Gay men and women should be respected. While same-sex marriage is not permitted, the Pope says that he wants to reaffirm “before all else” that the homosexual person needs to be “respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration, and ‘every sign of unjust discrimination’ is to be carefully avoided, particularly any form of aggression or violence.” Families with same-sex attraction members need “respectful pastoral guidance” from the Church and its pastors so that those with same-sex orientations can fully discern God’s will in their lives (250).
In many-respects, this is a ground-breaking document. And knowing Francis as we do, that is not surprising. Some commentators are disappointed that there is no doctrinal change concerning same-sex marriage or contraception (80). Others suggest it is too clergy-focussed when it comes to a person making an internal forum discernment. But overall, the Exhortation reminds us all that even in our imperfections, in the messiness of relationships, in the difficult situations in which we find ourselves, we are always and everywhere and unconditionally loved by God. And we are to help others experience that love. To know “the balm of God’s mercy” (296). To make the Church a place of welcome. Not to be bleak, burden-bearing and false ambassadors of that God of love.
This Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia offers the vision of a pastoral and merciful Church that encourages people to experience the “joy of love.” Its focus on family is the natural starting-point. Families are, after all, quintessentially ‘the domestic church’. As Francis reminds us, the Church is ultimately a “family of families” (80).
[I acknowledge some insights here by James Martin, SJ].